Saturday, June 27, 2009

More on Celebrity

Something that really bugs me about how I'm managing my life and my last Michael Jackson post is that like most people, I'm consumed with primarily national news and enjoy mainly worldwide celebrities. One of my goals is to delve deeper into my community, and we try. We want to consume locally and contribute where we can.

The funny thing even my small professional contributions are on a global scale as well. When you work at a multinational company, the code I write for them is executed by millions of people potentially all over the world (our latest release was targeted for users in England, our next release is heading to France)...

But local events have a pretty big influence over my quality of life. I have to drive by two unfinished condominium towers in downtown Tempe that may never be finished, but leave their shadows across our community. When our local government decides to balance the state budget on the back of our schools, here and here, that effects me.

And I should spend my money on the local art community, the local farmer's markets, local businesses, etc. But most importantly, I should be more aware about what's going on in the state capital building just a small number of miles from my house, and maybe a little, tiny bit less aware of what's going on in cities thousands of miles away.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

Yeah, yeah, what more do I have to say about Michael Jackson that isn't already on the internet...

But this is just simply incredible:

Of course this video is also all over the internet, but would it hurt to be in just one more page?

His life was pretty tragic. I have no idea how a person deals with all of that talent and attention he had to deal with at such a young age. But obviously, he didn't deal with it well. In an ideal world, we would have loved and appreciated the artists, but have left the man behind the art alone. That isn't how things are set up in our flawed, fallen world.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The End of Overeating - Chilli's

Wow, my wife bought me this book for Father's Day. Its a book I commented on earlier, here. The premise is that the food industry produces food that is easy chew and consume in large quantities, food that has layers upon layers of fat, sugar, and salt. And as a result, this type of food has a reinforcing effect, prompting us to desire more of it, to consume more of it, even when we are not hungry.

Here's a chapter on Chilli's (lesson for me, Chilli's is evil):

This paragraph describes a woman he watched eating at Chilli's - he easily could have described me:
"I was sitting at Chili's Grill & Bar in Chicago's O'Hare Airport waiting for a late-night flight. At a nearby table a couple in their early forties was deep into a meal. The woman was overweight, with about 180 pounds on her five-foot-four-inch frame. The Southwestern Eggrolls she had ordered were listed as a starter course, but the enormous platter in front of her had been heaped with food. The dish was described on the menu as 'smoked chicken, black beans, corn, jalapeno Jack cheese, red peppers, and spinach wrapped inside a crispy flour tortilla', and it was served with a creamy avacado-ranch dipping sauce. Despite its name, the dish looked more like a burrito than an egg roll, an only-in-America fusion approach.

I watched as the woman attacked her food with vigor and speed. She held the egg roll in one hand, dunked it into the sauce, and brought it to her mouth while using the fork in her other hand to scoop up more sauce. Occasionally she reached over and speared some of her companion's french fries. The woman ate steadily, working her way around the plate with scant pause for conversation or rest. When she finally paused, only a little lettuce was left.

Had she known someone was watching her, I'm sure she would have eaten differently. Had she been asked to describe what she had just eaten, she probably would have substantially underestimated her consumption. And she would probably have been surprised to learn what the ingredients in her meal really were.

The woman might have been interested in how my industry source, who had called sugar, fat, and salt the three points of the compass, described her entree. Deep-frying the tortilla drives down its water content from 40 percent to about 5 percent and replaces the rest with fat. 'The tortilla is going to absorb a lot of fat,' he said. 'It looks like an egg roll is supposed to look, which is crispy and brown on the outside.'

The food consultant read through other ingredients on the label, keeping up a running commentary as he did. 'Cooked white meat chicken, binder added, smoke flavor. People like smoky flavor -it's the caveman in them.'

'There's green stuff in there,' he said, noting the spinach. 'That makes me feel like I'm eating something healthy.'

'Shredded Monterey Jack cheese... The increase in per-capita consumption of cheese is off the chart.'

The hot peppers, he said 'add a little spice, but not too much to kill everything else off.'

He believed the chicken had been chopped and formed much like a meat loaf, with binders added, which makes those calories easy to swallow. Ingredients that hold moisture, including autolyzed yeast extract, sodium phoshpate, and soy protein concentrate further soften the food. I noticed that salt appeared eight times on the label and that sweeteners were there five times, in the form of corn-syrup solids, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and sugar.

'This is highly processed?' I asked.

'Absolutely, yes. All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast...chopped up and made ultrapalatable... Very appealing looking, very high pleasure food, very high caloric density. Rules out all that stuff you have to chew.'

By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster. 'When you're eating these things, you've had 500, 600, 800, 900 calories before you know it,' said the consultant. 'Literally before you know it.' Refined food simply melts in the mouth."

"With more than 1,400 locations and $3.2 million in sales per restaurant in 2007, Chilli's has been immensely popular. I visited the chain's restaurants in perhaps twelve different settings, many of them more than once. Often the restaurant was full, and sometimes crowds clustered at thte front door waiting for tables.

At a Chilli's north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I ordered Kick' Jack Nachos, where were a featured appetizer, and two entree - Boneless Shanghai Wings and Margarita Grilled Chicken - for myself and a colleague.

First, the Kickin' Jack Nachos. The plate was artfully presented, with the chips arranged in a circle surrounding a colorful chopped salad topped with a mound of pico de gallo salsa and another mound of sour cream. A slice of jalapeno pepper rested in the center of every chip. Marketed with the tagline 'Live a Little,' the Kickin' Jacks are a variation on the chain's classic nachos. The fried corn chip serves as the carrier of mashed blackbeans and a layer of zesty Monterey Jack cheese (there's more cheese in the Kickin' Jack nachos than in the classic version). A margarita spice mix gives them 'extra kick'.

Next Boneless Shanghai Wings. As described on the menu, these were 'crispy breaded chicken breast topped with sweet and spicy ginger-citrus sauce and sesame seeds. Served with spicy-cool wasabi-ranch dressing for dipping.' A dozen fat and textured chicken nuggets were set down in front of me - they looked great and had flavor to match.

Finally, Margarita Grilled Chicken. 'We start with tender, juicy chicken breast, marinate it with our classic Margarita flavoring, and grill it to perfection,' according to the menu. The dish is served with rice, black beans, strips of fried tortilla, and salsa. My dinner companion seemed to think it was relatively healthy.

Like the other dishes, it's artistically presented - a crosshatch of grill marks blackens both sides of the large, boneless breast, which sits atop accompaniments of contrasting colors and textures. The uncooked chicken had been in a marinade that combine orange juice, tequila, triple sec, sweet and sour mix, and artificial color, thereby including sugar, two kinds of oil, and salt. It was shipped in twenty-five-pound bags, each containing fifty pieces of meat, plus whey protein concentrate and modified tapioca starch.

Nick Nickleson, chief scientist at the Dallas-based Standard Meat, a supplier to Chilli's, said that the chicken and marinade tumbled together in a piece of equipment that resembled a cement mixer. 'It pulls the marinade into the muscle,' said Nickelson breaking down the cellular structure of the meat and tenderizing it in the process

Another common way to to get marinade into mat is through needle injection. Hundreds of needles are used to pierce the meat, tearing up the connective tissue. 'It's been prechewed,' said Billy Rosenthal, former president of Standard Meat.

For all that, very little in the appearance or flavor of Chili's food suggests how much sugar, fat, or salt it contains, or how easily it goes down. A woman siting near me eater nachos finished about two-thirds of her portion and then pushed her plate to the far side of her table. A few seconds later, she reached over and began to nibble again.

Every time I order food at Chili's I casually ask the server, 'What's in this?' Sometimes I asked the same question of the manager. I never asked for the recipe - I knew that was proprietary information. I didn't care what spices and seasonings were used, but I did want to know the major ingredients in the food I was ordering. As a consumer, I thought it was reasonable to find out what I was going to eat.

Staff were generally reluctant to answer the question.

'We can't tell you,' one manager said flatly.

'What are you concerned about?' asked a server. 'What are your allergies?'

'I'm not sure I'm allowed to say,' someone else said hesitantly.

Whatever the ingredients, my food consultant contact seemed to understand why some foods just slide down the throat. About Boneless Shanghai Wings, he said, 'Taking it off the bone is like taking the husk off the nut.' That processing step reduces the need for chewing, making the food faster to consume.

Those wings contain a solution of up to 25 percent water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, and sodium phosphate. The water is in there for several reasons. First, it bulks up the chicken - the industry calls this 'reducing shrinkage'. Second, water is cheaper than chicken breast, so it's less costly to produce. And finally, water makes the food softer and chewing easier.

Before the chicken is shipped from the manufacturing plant, it's battered, breaded, predusted, and frozen. This creates a salty coating that becomes crispy when fried in fat. 'All this stuff absorbs fat, dries out this batter and breading and replaces water with oil. So now you've got batter and breading that is probably 40 percent fat,' according to the food consultant. The crispy coating which also contains corn-syrup solids, dried yeast, and soybean oil, may represent up to half the volume of the nuggets on the plate.

Boxes containing eight four-pound bags of ginger-citrus sauce, each with a refrigerated shelf life of about four months, are shipped to Chili's restaurants to accompany the chicken. The ingredients in the sauce sounds relatively benign: sugar, hoisin sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili paste, modified food starch, and orange juice concentrate. But sugar is the dominant nutrient, and salt is listed three times.

The ginger-citrus sauce 'introduces syrupy, sweet, clingy stuff,' said the consultant. 'Sugar on sugar, really just different sugars. And lots of salt. And lots of intense flavor.' The hoison sauce contributes saltiness and a browning effect, while the orange juice concentrate adds a tangy fruit flavor.

Apparently Chilli's considers all of this insufficiently enticing. Accompanying the fried and sweetened chicken concoction is a wasabi ranch dressing, which is made from mayonnaise, buttermilk, spices, and wasabi powder and has a pleasantly sharp bite. 'Wasabi has a kind of a cool, green look to it, and people love creamy', said the consultant. 'The most popular salad dressings are creamy,' he added. 'The most popular soups are creamy.'

The wings are served in a basket lined with waxed paper and bits of strange-looking crispy noodles that absorb excess fat.

'How sensory is the meal?' I asked

'It's the quintessential example of how to cram as much hedonics as you can into one dish,' he answered. The needle on this three-point compass must have been gyrating wildly.

Like most chain restaurants in America, Chili's serves hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Proposed Cuts in Medicaid will Threaten Coverage of Diabetes Pumps

We just received this e-mail:

"Dear JDRF Families:

The state's Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) recently announced their Benefit Re-Design Proposal in an effort to address Arizona 's significant fiscal challenges and a substantial growth in the Medicaid population. One coverage cut that has been proposed is the elimination of Insulin Pumps for Adults (age 21+) living with diabetes.

This is a grave disservice to the diabetes community and we are asking for your help in fighting this proposed cut. AHCCCS is accepting public comment on this issue until June 26th via email. There is a public hearing scheduled for this Monday, June 15th at the AHCCCS Administration building in Phoenix from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. We urge you to email with why coverage of insulin pumps is important for adults living with diabetes.

AHCCCS is recommending that coverage for pumps be eliminated for ADULTS ONLY, and though this may not apply to you or your loved one, it is still important that we fight this recommendation. Whether this directly affects you and your family, or whether or not you or a loved one utilizes the pump, allowing AHCCCS to eliminate this coverage will negatively the diabetes community and places access to quality care in jeopardy. When drafting your email, please include specific examples of how insulin pumps have helped your family manage their diabetes. If you or your loved one does not use the pump, please keep in mind the pump has been proven in a number of case studies to 1.) help patients better controlled blood glucose levels, 2.) benefit those suffering hypoglycemia unawareness and 3.) benefit those who are pregnant. Also remember, currently AHCCCS does not cover Diabetes Self Management Training, and that with this cut; AHCCCS will be even greater limiting access to quality care for those living with diabetes.

These recommendations will have to pass through the legislative process and once we have more information on exactly how the recommendations will move forward we will be reaching out again to you for your help in defeating the legislation before it has a chance to go to the Governor for her signature."

This irritates me to no end. We have massive waste in our health care system. But diabetes management is not one of them...

By the way here is the complete list:

- Emergency Dental Services
- Medically Necessary Dentures
- Genetic Testing
- Orthotics
- Insulin Pumps
- Services by a Podiatrist
- Percussive Vests
- Gastric Bypass Surgery
- Allergic Immunotherapy
- Well exams for adults
- Bone-Anchored Hearing Aids
- Cochlear Implants

- Non Emergency Medical Transportation (not available for waiver groups in Maricopa
and Pima counties)
- Negative Pressure Wound Therapy
- Somnography (limit to 1 study/year)
- Physical Therapy (limit to 6 visits/year)
- Durable Medical Equipment (limit to Medicare covered items only)
- Prosthetics (limit non-implantable items to $12,500/year)
- Transplants (selected limitations)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You, yes you, really, really, really need to listen to these podcasts

We are experiencing a historic economic meltdown. Last September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed which basically forced a massive collapse in the stock market, a credit freeze, and the most obvious indicator that our economy was in a free fall. The government has been in massive bailout mode ever since.

If you really want to understand what happened, and you really, really should, the best way to do so, to get a nice overview of what has happened in an even-handed non-partison way, you need to listen to these "This American Life" podcasts (or read the transcript):

The Watchmen

This is a very interesting overview about why the regulatory system failed to put a check on the massive risk our financial institutions took on over the past five to six years, and why they were unable to properly regulate.

One of the culprits is the why regulators get chosen and the way they get paid. Unbelievably, regulators are chosen and paid by the banks they regulate. The ratings agencies (yeah those guys who gave all of those now toxic assets AAA ratings) are yes, paid by the people they apply ratings on...

Part of the reason was that the ratings agencies just weren't strong enough to take on the big guys.

Part of the reason is that Congress passed a bill (signed by Clinton in 2000) that made it difficult to regulate the very parts of the financial system that ended up taking down the entire economy.

Finally this page provides links to some very smart and easy to follow radio shows given over the past six months or so that you simply have to listen to.

"The Giant Pool of Money"
This one describes how the quantity of money globally (real money, not fake - the world has gotten richer as we have innovated and have become more globally productive) has doubled the past 6 years. And how a big chunk of that came into the US markets. Couple that with the fact that Greenspan kept interest rates too low for too long just put enormous amounts of investment dollars into real estate, putting horrible pressures to find new buyers of that real estate, very directly causing the massive bubble we have now seen. Which ironically has caused a big drop in our productivity and global wealth. Yep, a big chunk of that cash has disappeared into thin air.

"Another Frightening Show About the Economy"
This is a great overview of what happened right after Lehman Brothers collapsed and AIG nearly collapsed. Why it freaked Bernanke and Paulson out so much. Because banks stopped lending to each other. Money market funds (which are just a shade riskier than savings acconts) "broke the buck" and were at risk of collapse. Lending came to a standstill. Even companies like GE and McDonalds could not borrow money. It was a historic time in our economic history. This show also explains credit default swaps and why they they were so bad and toxic and why the role they played in taking out the economy.

"Bad Bank"
This one has a lot of Simon Johnson in it. It describes the dire situation of the banking situation. How the housing collapse has made many of them insolvent. Quite literally, many banks have already failed, many more would have already if not for the massive amounts of money our government has given them.

"Scenes from a Recession"
This is a really poignant show that describes anecdotally some pretty crazy housing situations some people have gotten themselves into. Condos built complete with granite countertops but literally without a foundation...

Finally, this podcast, "No Map" has one segment in it about how banks are literally not behaving in their self interest.

It would make a lot of sense if they worked with individuals to restructure their loans, but they are not because they can't. They simply do not have the facilities to evaluate the massive amounts of people who could really use this sort of restructuring (maybe cut the loan amount some, drop the interest rates, etc.). As a result, massive amounts of people are walking away from their homes. Banks are forced to hold them and eventually sell them, losing far more money than they could have if they could have worked out a deal to keep the original owners in their homes.

Its a massive tragedy.

I am a regular listener of "This American Life", so this information trickled my way over six or so months. It might be too much to take all at once. So I do recommend spacing this out...

But I feel its vital that you listen to it. There's been a lot of partisan finger pointing in the public space. What I believe is that the blame is wide. Basically, we all had some amount of blame. Its time we worked together to get to a solution that will work.

But to come to a solution, you have to understand the problem. And you, my reader, have got to be part of the solution. So please, get informed.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Die Broke

I'm currently dabbling in this book, Die Broke. The essence of the book, really, can be captured on the front cover:

  • Quit Today: Not necessarily literally, but quit the notion that you can derive satisfaction directly from your job. Your job is a means to generate income so that with that income you can derive satisfaction from life.

  • Pay Cash

  • Don't Retire

  • Die Broke

The book is geared largely toward baby boomers. Demographically, it just doesn't make economic sense for people to retire anymore at age 65. The world is too uncertain, there are too many baby boomers retiring all at once, and people are living much longer than they used to. So, this is a paradigm shift. To learn to use work to generate income. Enjoy life throughout your life. This notion of leaving an inheritance to your children is not helping anyone out. Spend money on your kids while you're still alive. And of course, to keep out of debt will provide you the sense of security throughout your life, and will allow you to live flexibly.

In the book, he also talks about why we should avoid this notion of buying starter houses that we can quickly flip into a dream house after two or three house upgrades. Rather, he suggests to make your first house the dream house by saving longer for the down payment, and spending more time to find the house that will meet your needs throughout your life.

One final suggestion was the reverse mortgage, this notion that toward the end of life, after the house is paid off, to take out another mortgage that will allow you to generate income off of the house through the remaining years of your life. When you die, the bank gets the house...

But why leave the house to your kids anyway, it wasn't their dream house it was yours. Let them figure that out for themselves.

All very innovative ideas if you ask me.